Why the OSR?

This post is essentially a follow up on this comment on a previous post:

Maybe if you told us what interests you in OSR stuff? You blogged about what it ISN’T, but what about what it IS?

I remember your old post about looking for a sturdy adventure game, but I’m a bit lost trying to understand how OSR reaches this. To my untrained eye Raggi is doing essentially lovecraftian stuff (“touch it and you die”) and the rest of the bunch print 70′s D&D in different colored boxes. This most likely isn’t the truth, but as said, I’m having problem seeing what makes OSR so “real”, “genuine” or “inventive”. Care to help me out? Maybe that would also help you find like-minded players.

I’ll start with one more ISN’T. The OSR isn’t just one specific thing, so it would be pointless for me to try and describe the whole of the OSR. Instead, I’ll take a stab at describing what specifically interests and appeals to me.

First off, simplicity of design. The games I play have extremely light rules, that cover only the bare minimum of instances that might come up during a game session. Instead of hard rules, there are guidelines and rulings. This design creates a framework for the referee, which in no way constrains creativity. Also, no game time is taken up by the necessity to look up this or that esoteric rule in a huge 300 page tome. Granted, the downside to this lightness is the reliance on the authority of the referee. Then again, this is really only a downside if you don’t trust the judgement of your referee, and don’t communicate with the people you play with.

Second, the freedom that stems not only from the looseness of the rules system but also from the assumed style of play and adventure design. The typical Old School adventure isn’t a series of encounters or scenes leading up to a pre-designed dramatic climax. Rather the story is what comes out of play, that is players interacting with the game world as presented by the referee. Again, there is a caveat. For this to work properly, the referee needs to prepare enough material beforehand to be prepared for any eventuality that might come up during play, or he needs to be able to improvise game content based on the material that’s already been established about the game world. Fortunately the OSR provides the referee with a lot of tools designed for these express purposes. The referee has a veritable buffet table of content to choose from, be it tables for anything from carousing to random happenings, or locations ready to be explored, or monsters, characters, magic items or anything else one can think of that can be dropped into any adventure on a moment’s notice. In a sense, this toolbox mentality even extends to the OSR adventures modules, which usually don’t have ready-made plots at all.

Third, the old school material does not force a designer’s intent on the individual referee in the way that many newer settings and adventures do. The OSR designer is not an auteur, who’s work is sacrosanct, and to be used as is. Exactly the opposite in fact. The Old School method of using material written by someone else is adapt it, change it more to your liking, mine it for ideas, and basically do with it what you want. I realize I’m repeating myself here, but really, the Adventure is what happens at the table, NOT what is written in a book. I think this is one of the main stumbling blocks for people more familiar with stricter by-the-book play (Who look at the OSR stuff and go all “this is lame, this guy has no motivation, and that guy doesn’t even have a PROPER NAME, and this whole thing ISN’T GOING ANYWHERE”.), or for the people who’re into Forge stuff, which is very focused and specifically designed for ONE type of gaming experience (Who look at the OSR stuff, and immediately start looking for definite how-to guidelines on HOW to actually run the game, or how the designer intended the material to be used. I’ll give you a clue: It really does not matter what the designer was thinking when he wrote what he wrote. What matters is what you make of the material at your own gaming table.).

That last point is really what drives the nail down. The OSR game is what happens at the table. It is what the referee makes of the material he is using, be it his own or someone else’s. It is what the players make of the material the referee presents them with. It is the interaction of all of the above in the situation that is a tabletop role-playing game session.

That’s it in a nutshell, really.

5 responses to “Why the OSR?

  1. With that definition, I’m “into Forge stuff”, looking for how-to guidelines. Because if I didn’t care about the designer’s intent, why would I be reading other people’s texts in the first place? Just to pick up some relatively random inspiration? Thanks, but I’ve got that plenty already.

    Not long ago we started a gaming session with a blank sheet of paper, created a situation and played it without any rules (freeform). In a sense, it was very OSR-like stuff: extremely light rules and the story was what came out of the play (as absolutely nothing was pre-generated). Full thing, from zero to finish in four hours or somesuch. I don’t need any fancy tables, charts or adventures to determine what sort of stuff could be in the game I gamemaster, but I do need a “designer’s intent” to learn a totally new play styles.

    I don’t mean to offend in any way, I’m just having trouble trying to understand this “roleplaying rulebook is a toolbox” -approach.

    • Sami, seems to me you need someone more eloquent than me to explain it to you, then. I can’t think of a way I could make what I’m trying to say any clearer than I’ve already said.

      For the record (since you did go on the defensive there), I’m not trying to pigeon-hole you (or anyone else for that matter) into anything as narrow as the above-mentioned oversimplification of “Forge Guys”.

      • Yeah, no pigeon-holing, I know. I used it in order to explain my background with your terms, so that you (or any reader) could put my comments into a context.

    • Two of the big differences between OSR stuff and (broadly put) Forge stuff are attitude toward ‘style’ and, more importantly, attitude toward genre. Leave style aside for now.

      Broadly: it’s not cool to talk explicitly about genre in the OSR, but at the Forge it’s absolutely essential. The genre of D&D games is essentially ‘D&D games’ (the major cultural fact about D&D, probably), and that’s a matter of small-group folklore; whereas a game like (obviously, especially) ‘Fiasco’ or ‘Dogs in the Vineyard’ or ‘Mouse Guard’ or ‘Sorceror’ or ‘My Life with Master’ is meant to slot into a very particular preexisting genre tradition. Robin Laws’s classic ‘Pantheon’ is a keystone example here, but ‘Vampire: The Masquerade’ is the much-maligned Missing Link between D&D power fantasies and thematically-driven story-games.

      When OSR types talk about ‘story is what happens at the table,’ there’s a kind of sotto voce anxiety being expressed: please don’t ask me to tell a ‘story.’ Dramatic performance is scary and hard; improv scarier and harder. The idea of structured literary expression is anathema to most self-consciously old-school D&D players; instead of ‘genre’ they obey ‘tradition,’ and that’s a make-it-up-as-you-go thing. But D&D tradition is its own genre, of course.

      The OSR is about RPGs as adventure board games without boards – ‘story’ has pretty much no place at all. Fine, whatever, but once you throw in D&D’s stated purpose of fantasy emulation you get a troublesome misunderstanding (or charitably a primitive/idiosyncratic understanding) of the ‘role’ in ‘roleplay’; it dates back to Gygax and he did his damnedest to perpetuate it; the Forge is an explicit repudiation of this paradigm.

      I sense that most OSR types tend to wrinkle their nose at the smell of non-numerical ‘analysis’ and scholarship on RPGs as well. That’s another anxiety, I think: if we talked in those terms about what we’re actually doing we might not (want to) do it that way anymore. Well, it’s a form of primitivism, as Maliszewski has pointed out. There’s a hot streak of anti-intellectualism there too, and that’s fine (to each his own), but it does kind of limit the reach of the whole thing.

      The reasons for the OSR rhetoric about ‘designer’s intent’ (boo!) is possibly about not wanting to be tied to genres and (terrifyingly) social/behavioral norms beyond D&D folklore itself. It is a refuge, after all, from the Norms; and nothing is more Normal than ’emulate this movie everyone has seen,’ or ‘recreate a Victorian novel’s aesthetics,’ or that kind of thing. School! Ewwwww!!

      And the Forge was full of A-students who loved hanging with Teacher (Edwards, ahem).

      Anyhow the central matter is Story, which is to say narrative expectations, for which Genre is a shorthand, and the OSR treats that as an unwelcome imposition.

      Does that help?

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